Our Part in Forgiveness
Matthew 18: 21-35. Genesis 50: 15-21.
Last week we were talking about what we should do when others are a pain in the neck.
How we should go to them privately to sort it out.
Then if that doesn't work then we should find a mediator whom we both trust to help sort it out.
If the rift goes further then it may take the bigger group of church leaders to sort it out.
But the final belief is that we never stop loving them.
Today's passage takes that a bit further.
In this passage Peter is getting practical.
This is the difference between theory and practice.
Peter comes up to Jesus and says, ‘Look it’s OK you saying that we need to go to the pain in the neck and sort it out. But what if he has really done us wrong. And not only done us wrong, but continues to do it. How many times should we forgive them? Seven Times?’
I think this is a very valid question from Peter.
And let’s be clear about the question Peter is asking.
Peter is not asking, ‘How many times should I forgive someone?’
Peter is asking, ‘If someone keeps on making the same mistakes, is never learning from what they did before. Then how many times should I forgive them?’
A real example. A friend of mine found that her husband had gone into a lot of debt because of gambling. He hid it for ages and it was only by accident that she found out. He begged her to forgive him and give him a second chance.
She paid all that debt off and he promised that he would never do it again.
And then he did.
I think if her husband put her into debt seven times, that he put her in a position that she could lose everything, and she forgave him seven times my friend would have gone above and beyond.
Another real example. I had an uncle that was abused by his wife.
I don't know how many times she would just get so angry and start hitting him. Then she would feel remorse and ask for forgiveness. Once she even went at him with a knife while he was in hospital because she thought that he shouldn’t be lying in bed recovering but at home looking after her.
There are various times she could have killed him. Yet he stayed with her for over 40 years.
How long should he have let that happen? How many times should he have forgiven her? Seventy times seven?
Peter’s question is a valid question.
‘If my brother keeps on sinning against me. How many times should I forgive him?’
And I hate to say this, but Jesus doesn't answer the question.
And the reason Jesus doesn’t answer the question, is because Jesus doesn’t feel that is the right question.
Jesus sees that there is a question behind the question.
And when Jesus sees a question behind the question, he answers the real question, the one Peter should have asked.
The question Peter asked was, ‘When my brother keeps on sinning against me, how often should I forgive him?’
But the question Peter really wants to ask is, ‘When my brother keeps sinning against me. How long before I can give up on him? How long before I can wash my hands of him? How many times do I let him get away with it before I can justify hating him and wishing the worst for him? How long before I can wish him some cruel end and be happy for him to end up ruined? How long before I can smile because he will get what he deserves?’
My wife loves watching NCIS. And the story line for each episode is much the same as every other detective TV programme. There is a bad guy who does bad things at the start of the episode. And, through wonderful deduction, at the end of the episode the bad guy gets caught and gets what he deserves. And because we don’t trust the justice system and think he might get off, or because we think that if the bad guy killed someone at the start of the episode then the bad guy deserves to be killed, then often the bad guy is killed by the heroes.
And we go to bed satisfied that justice has been done.
Now I’m not saying that that is the way it should happen.
But I am saying that deep down that is the way we think it should happen.
And the reason I say that is often these series go on for years and years. And they go on for years and years because people want to see them, and they want to see them because that’s the way they think it should happen. If it didn't happen that way people would stop watching the programme.
Let’s change the programme.
At the start of the programme a bad guy does a very bad thing. Through wonderful deduction the hero discovers who the bad guy is. And at the end of the programme the hero says, ‘I forgive you.’ and just lets the bad guy go.
How long do we think that programme would last before it got cancelled?
We have in our heart, rightly, a sense of justice and injustice. A belief that when people do bad things, that it is making this world worse.
It is not the way God wants it to be.
It is not the way it should be.
And something has to be done about it.
Someone has to do something about it.
Why this passage is so difficult is because that is what is in Peter’s heart and Peter wants Jesus to answer that.
‘When my brother keeps on sinning against me. How many times should I forgive him?
The reason Jesus doesn't answer Peter’s question is because there is something more important that Peter needs to sort out...and that is what is happening in Peter’s own heart.
So Jesus tells of a king, now it’s obvious that the king is God.
And this king has a servant.
And before the king, before God, we have botched up big time.
And in those days this debt that was created would be the same as a national debt. We are talking more than Roseanna, my wife, would spend in Ikea. We are talking huge amounts.
Recently a footballer called Neymar was transferred to Paris St Germain for £222 million pounds. I worked out that would take me nearly 8,000 lifetimes wages to raise that amount of money.
So this servant has somehow lost that amount of money. He is never going to be able to pay it back. And the king, or God, says that the crime deserves the punishment and not only is going to make this person a slave, but the rest of his family. In that society this servant make have all his extended family as his responsibility, that is 70-80 people that could have become slaves because of what he has done.
The servant asks for forgiveness, begs for forgiveness. He knows he will never be able to make up for what he has done but what else can he do?
And much to everyone's surprise, the king, or God forgives him.
We have been given the most amazing gift ever, life.
The chance to do amazing things, experience amazing things, be amazing. And truth be told we waste it.
We deserve at the end of our life, nothing. We should expect oblivion.
But God forgives us.
Offers us instead, love, hope, compassion, forgiveness, joy, peace.
Not only does he offer that in the next life, we can experience that in this life, along with healing and purpose and meaning.
What should the servant’s response to that be?
I would expect wonder, gratitude, joy, elation.
This is a second chance to live life and do it right this time.
But that is not what this servant feels.
This servant feels he has gotten away with it. He feels no sense of debt or gratitude. He has learnt no lesson.
And as he leaves he sees a fellow servant who owes him a pittance, and because his friend couldn't pay him back immediately he puts him in prison.
The king finds out and rescinds the forgiveness.
I think Jesus is giving us a warning in this parable.
Because although it is obvious that the king is God in the story, it is not so obvious who the servant is.
Maybe the servant in the story is the person who has hurt us.
If so then we don’t need to do anything, we don’t need to worry about anything, because God will find out in the end and the bad guy will be sorted out by God.
But maybe, and I think this is what Jesus was afraid of.
That the servant is Peter, the servant is us.
And if the servant is us then Jesus is warning us what we let into our heart.
For we have a choice.
If our heart is led by what we believe God has done for us, if our main thoughts are about how God has been and continues to be so generous to us...then our hearts can be full of compassion and joy and forgiveness. We can treat others the way God has treated us.
Now that doesn’t mean that we allow others to abuse us.
It doesn’t help others if we allow them to make us a door mat.
We can set boundaries.
We can put conditions of behaviour on our relationship.
We can even divorce or withhold from seeing them if that is what is needed.
But we don’t give up on them.
Because of we do then we fill our heart with other things.
Instead of our heart thinking of how good God has been to us.
We let their hurt and evil create hatred in our heart.
Instead of compassion in our heart we feel the need for vengeance.
Instead of wanting the best for that person we want the worst.
Instead of joy being in our heart we feel anger.
And Jesus cared more about our heart, Peter’s heart, than he cared about what was happening to us.
Because what happens to us in this world is short term, what happens to our heart is eternal.
So, hard as it is, when folk sin against us, we never give up on them, we never let them change our heart, we keep it full of the love and compassion that it should have.
Because God didn't create us to be victims, he created us to be beloved children.
And if we let hatred and vengeance and anger into our heart, then we become another victim, we become like those who have hurt us, we build walls round ourselves to prevent ourselves being hurt again, we isolate ourselves and stop others from being there for us, we stop being the child of God, the child of fellowship and community that we were created to be. We create a castle round ourselves to protect ourselves. But that castle cuts off everyone else, and soon the castle has become no more than a prison of our own making.
How many times should I forgive my brother who keeps on sinning against me?
That depends on what type of life you want to live.
If you want to be like him, if you want to be exactly like that brother who cares so little for others...then never forgive him. For your heart will grow through anger and hatred to become just like his.
But then what is your heart worth?
God felt your heart was worthy of forgiveness, of a second chance, of feeling compassion and hope, love and joy.
Maybe we should have the courage to let those things into our heart?